I find my best friend from college, Byron, inside his housemate's closet. He's dressed only in a pair of blue gym shorts and the housemate, Melanie, is female. He doesn't seem especially happy to see me.
"Why are you in Melanie's closet?" I ask.
"Why are you in Melanie's bedroom?"
"Your front door was open."
"I was just helping her get something."
"Can't she get it herself?"
Melanie's closet has a cheap accordion door that lost the ability to play in harmony long ago. Byron's leg pushes one of the pleats out at an off key angle. He hooks his foot around the edge of the door to bring it back on track. The inside is dense with brightly colored clothes, even some dresses, most of which I've never seen Melanie wear. Up to now, I thought she only owned faded jeans and some version of a sweater. The light in her closet is off. Byron reaches up to the metal chain to switch the light on.
"She has a bad back. You know that."
I nod, but want to ask what that has to do with finding things in her closet.
Byron doesn't answer right away.
"I think she's taking a shower."
The sound of running water suddenly comes from the other side of Melanie's bathroom door. Even though she's the newest one in the house, Melanie managed to claim the master bedroom when she moved in seven months ago. Byron, who is normally rigid about the protocols of shared rental housing, let it happen. I took that as a good sign.
"Do you need help?"
"No, she doesn't need your help."
"I didn't mean the shower, I meant looking for whatever you're looking for."
"No…" he pauses, "I already found it."
"So you just decided to hang out in her closet?"
At four in the afternoon, Melanie's bed is unmade.
Ever since early childhood, the geometry of closets confounded me. How can there be all this extra space beyond the walls of a room? Shouldn't the volume of the closet show somewhere on the outside of the house? My grandparents' house had nine closets. Each one had hinged doors with circular doorknobs. The shelves inside were painted and finished, the light switch had a cover plate, and even an adult could stand in the middle comfortably without brushing against hanging clothes. I remember walking the perimeter of their house more than once convinced that I would find signs of protruding closet space. As I got older, I was surprised to learn that other people talked of hiding things in closets when I'd wondered instead how they manage to hide the closet itself.
Melanie's closet shelves aren't level. Nails stick out of one end of the wooden dowel that serves as the closet rod. The metal half-circle bracket that connects it to the wall shows signs of having been bent. The closet itself is so shallow I'm surprised to find that my best friend fits inside.
Byron stands up. I note that he has nothing in his hands. "I'm sure Melanie is going to come out any minute. You shouldn't be in here."
"You shouldn't be in here either."
"Right," he mutters, then starts to walk me out her door, but he doesn't make it to the living room with me.
For several minutes, I am alone with two cinder block bookshelves, a couch rescued from a dormitory common room, and a black and white television. I note that the door to Melanie's room is now closed.
I think most people would jump to the obvious conclusion. After all, things are generally what they look like. Pretty much anyone else would ask, "Are you two fucking?"
Byron hasn't had a girlfriend, or at least he's never acknowledged one in the four years I've known him. Instead, he likes to talk about his ideal woman who he insists has the graceful neck and arms of the women in paintings of Tokugawa Japanese nobility, displays pre-Raphaelite fashion sense, and who has the mind of Virginia Woolf without the whole acute depression part.
Bryon became my friend in college when he told me he could explain the rules that helped guys get girlfriends. Everyone else laughed at me. Byron was different. He could prove things just like Euclid. Everything fit and he had lots of ideas about ideal parts and logic.
An expanse of paper squares, the playing map for Dungeons and Dragons, covers the carpet on the far side of the living room. Byron and Godfrey, the other housemate here, have hosted their Dungeon for two years. I've sometimes wondered how Byron expects to find his ideal woman when he spends twelve hours each weekend playing this game. Some of the female role characters in D&D match Byron's ideal woman, but none of the players I've met ever do.
Two years ago I got out of playing by telling them, "I am terrified of any world where dice have more than six sides and things have hit points." I'm happy to read about sorcerers and orcs, but this is Halloween without the candy. I was the kid who wouldn't wear a costume, but trick-or-treated anyway. I understood the candy, but role playing had no appeal.
Melanie comes out of her room in jeans and sweater. It's summer, but she prefers clothes that cover all parts of her body. She's attractive enough in a non-pre Raphaelite way, but as Byron points out, she doesn't know how to dress. Since she moved in, Byron told me three times that Melanie had never heard of Mrs. Dalloway. "Can you imagine that?" he would ask. I never told him that I hadn't made it past high tea in Clarissa Dalloway's day, and that I only know To the Lighthouse through Cliffs Notes.
Melanie puts on her glasses, we exchange greetings, and then she asks me, "Why were you looking in my closet, Lucky?"
"I wasn't looking in your closet," I tell her.
"The front door was open when I got here."
"Please don't go into my room without knocking."
"I didn't mean to snoop. No one was here. I was just making sure you guys hadn't been abducted by aliens."
She laughs. I laugh even though you're not supposed to laugh at your own jokes.
"Where did Byron go?" I ask.
"He had to get something out of his room for the D&D marathon."
Melanie used to play too, but she quit a few weeks ago after some incident with Byron that neither of them talks about. The last few Saturdays, Melanie and I have wound up hanging out together until the dungeoneers take their break. I should have more interesting things to do with my weekends, but I don't.
"Do you want to walk again?" I ask.
Usually Melanie says yes, but this time she says, "Maybe in a bit."
"I hope they grow out of this dumb game. Maybe if Byron found a girlfriend or something."
"How do you know he hasn't?" Melanie looks down at the floor as she says it.
"Because he'd say so. I'm his friend. He'd tell me. That's how friendship works."
I don't think of myself as socially retarded, but people say that from time to time. My mother sent me to a doctor once who concluded that I have a mild case of Asperger's Syndrome, which basically means that I'm socially retarded.
Melanie leans against the wall of the living room. She picks at her fingernails, but doesn't say anything.
"I hope you find a boyfriend some time too."
Melanie shakes her head. "That's not something I'm looking for."
"Why wouldn't you want a boyfriend?"
"I don't need one right now."
"Byron thinks you should find one." He told me that.
Melanie's face falls. She excuses herself and slips back to her bedroom.
I used to wonder if you could stuff more things into a closet than you could into the house that contained it. At the time, I had decided that I wanted to be smart or at least have people think I was smart because smart people didn't have to be like everyone else.
Somehow it got in my head that being smart was more like filling a closet than organizing one. I purposely read books that were too advanced. Real nine-year-olds do not understand Quantum theory, Kant, or the Albigensian heresy, but I would try to read them anyway. In fact, I read through Will and Ariel Durant's entire history of western philosophy. I understood most of the words, but never caught any of the meaning. I had a knack for remembering things out of context well, so it sometimes appeared to others that I really was reading the stuff. It was as if those stray words and anecdotes hung on rods in my head. I figured I'd grow into their meanings some day.
Instead, I've gotten unnaturally good at observing and remembering without drawing conclusions. Maybe that's why I've managed to get along with Byron for so long. He eventually gets in fights with most other people. They're not physical fights, just odd disagreements. One time, our friend, Nikki, said that she liked the Eagles. Byron told her, "No one can logically like the Eagles. They aren't musically advanced enough."
Nikki tried to change the subject. Byron persisted, "Tell me one thing that makes them musically significant."
After that, she stopped coming by.
Over the last few months, Byron has been helping Melanie develop more sophisticated tastes. "She's never thought about things like this, never been exposed… It's sort of sad." This does not explain why she always beats him at games like Scrabble.
Suddenly, Byron appears.
"Lucky, we've talked about this before. Some of the things I say to you are private."
"What things are private?"
"Melanie told me you told her I said she should find a boyfriend."
"You did. What's so private about that?"
"She's very sensitive for some reason."
"I can't trust you with things like this if you talk about them with her. It's like you're Inspector So Clueless sometimes."
I almost say, "That's why we're friends," but instead tell him, "You didn't say to keep that private."
"I shouldn't have to."
I once asked the doctor what you're supposed to do about having Asperger's. "You just have to make the best of it," he told me, "There's no real cure, but it does help to be aware of it."
Now I know about it, but that doesn't help much. I try to be nice, but there appears to be something more to navigating actual friendship. I asked the doctor if he had a map I could use.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"Don't navigators use maps or charts?"
He laughed, wrote it down on his notepad, then explained to me that Asperger's people often are very literal.
I've made some progress though. I didn't repeat what Byron said that same night about Melanie looking and acting like a spinster, or how he wishes she wouldn't hang around him so much and just doesn't know how to tell her.
A few minutes later the Dungeons and Dragons crew arrives bearing bags of potato chips as big as pillows, two-liter bottles of soda, and backpacks filled with science fiction and fantasy books that they trade. Melanie decides to hang out and watch the game. I do the same for a few minutes, then go for a walk by myself.
I trace the perimeter of their house as I study the fading paint on the exterior walls. I've never had an easy time making friends. I'd like to keep these friends even if they aren't perfect because it's better to have friends than not.
But, here's my problem. It's the way Byron talks about Melanie. If she's not ideal, then there's a problem with congruence. I gave them a chance to explain why Byron was in the closet. I'll tell myself, whatever happens in this house is their business. I can leave it hanging.
Copyright © Marko Fong 2007.